Archive for category Writer basics 101
Is the tone of your prose in tune with your novel? A simple exercise with Pharrell Williams and Yellow Magic Orchestra
Your prose does more than simply describe what happens. It creates the experience in the reader’s mind – the atmosphere, the themes, the lighting, the mood. Imagine the book has a soundtrack, like a movie. In fact it does, because the ‘music’ is created by the shape of the words and the images they conjure. A writer’s distinctive style is often called their ‘voice’, and that voice speaks the book inside the reader’s mind. So we have to be very deliberate with every word.
But quite often, writers don’t realise they’re actually sabotaging their narrative by inappropriate word choices.
To hone your awareness, try this exercise
Pick a simple scenario. Let’s have a character waking up in the morning, climbing out of bed, putting on a dressing gown (or, if you prefer, a suit of armour). Write it in your normal voice. Don’t put on a character. Just imagine it’s you, being natural, explaining to a friend.
Now write it again – as a character with a skippy song in their heart. Infuse the text with vigour, optimism and joie de vivre. Smile at your screen. Don your headphones, dial up Pharrell … okay, that might be too much for some of you.
Now go to the dark side. Describe exactly the same sequence, but make it tense. Foreboding. This is someone who wakes up and doesn’t know where they are. Or has been startled out of sleep by a sudden sound. For this I recommend Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Loom, which appropriately for our setting has a picture of the morning tooth routine.
Do you see how different they all are? Notice particularly where your natural voice falls on the spectrum of mood. Is that the tone you use in the narrative parts of your novel? Does it fit the material?
Of course, the examples I’ve made you write are extremes, but they demonstrate what a difference your narration makes to the atmosphere – and how you can change it.
Here’s the rub. Writers often use their ‘normal’ voice in the narrative parts of their novel, as though they were explaining to a friend, perhaps over coffee or wine. Without realising it, they’re being flippant, raconteurish or breezy. Their main character is being interrogated by the police? He’s ‘squirming’ in his chair. A cherished ornament is knocked off mantelpiece? It ‘topples and bounces’ to the floor. A character is in intensive care? They’re ‘encumbered’ with tubes. A character’s lover is shot by the police? Their blood ‘splatters everywhere’. It’s all rather jolly. They’ve got Pharrell in their hearts when they might be better with a gulp of YMO.
If you find it tricky to establish an appropriate tone for a serious scene, try drafting it in first person to get the mindset. Then switch back to general narration once you’ve established the mood and perspective.
But what about humour?
Of course, even the darkest stories need humour. Humour is part of life. But it’s better done through the characters – their thoughts, actions, quips, the ironies of their behaviour. It shouldn’t look as though the neutral narrative is telling the reader to find the situation humorous. If you describe a cop as ‘huffing and puffing’ as he chases a suspect, you’ve introduced levity. Is that appropriate to the action or would you be better to say his lungs were raw but he wouldn’t give up?
Let’s stay with ‘huffing and puffing’. If a humorous remark is made through the filter of a character, it’s entirely different.
Indeed, the humour can add an interesting layer. John le Carre uses this in The Night Manager. In one scene, the agent handler, Burr, has tapped the phone of his agent, Jonathan Pine. As Burr eavesdrops, he hears Pine get a call from the villain’s girlfriend.
Jonathan at first furious … but then less furious. And finally, if Burr read the music right, not furious at all. So that finally… it’s nothing but Jonathan … Jonathan … Jonathan … and a lot of huffing and puffing…’
Yes, this description is humorous, embarrassed, dismissive – but it’s in the mind of Burr. It doesn’t defuse the tension or make the incident trivial because it’s coloured by Burr’s feelings. Indeed, it shows his exasperation, his horror and disbelief that his agent is putting everything in jeopardy by having a liaison with the villain’s woman. (More here about the prose of The Night Manager.)
Your prose makes the environment
The prose is like a soundtrack for a movie, the lighting, the mood. Your natural outlook, your raconteur voice, may not be right for your fiction.
Main pic courtesy BBC
Is there a writer whose narrative voice you particularly admire for evoking atmosphere? Have you had to consciously modify your writing voice to suit your material? Even, have you altered your chosen genre because you discovered your voice suits it better? Let’s discuss!
Some of you know that I began my writing career incognito, as a ghost-writer. It gave me certain habits and approaches that I still use to this day, and I’m sure they were a head start for productive writing processes. Today I’m talking about those habits at Jo Malby’s blog. (And as I’ve had two guest posts this week, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the rest of the weekend off. There is bank holidaying to do, as well as a spot of writing.)
And if you’re wondering about ghost-writing yourself, let me clear my throat discreetly and point you to this…
I recently watched the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager, and of course went straight to the novel afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptation, but I’m loving the novel more.
You might think that’s an obvious thing for a writer to say. But I’d like to think about why.
Let’s put aside certain practicalities. Obviously the book had to be reshaped to translate it to TV, and updated for 2016 (technology, current world events, making a key character female).
That’s not what I want to talk about; I’m interested here in the medium of delivery. The watching senses compared with the reading ones. Why do I find reading the novel is more special than watching the show?
Books are interior
A key difference is the organisation of Jonathan Pine’s back story. In the TV version this is streamlined into simple chronological order, but the novel shuffles the material to us in digressions. A character makes a remark and Pine is taken back to an earlier event. At first this seems quite digressive, but gradually you’re bedded more deeply into Pine’s buried layers, his stifled memories and his slow awakening into a new man.
This interority is something that’s difficult for TV or film to achieve, although Krzysztof Kieślowski is a notable example of a writer-director who does. But usually, watching makes us outsiders. So the BBC’s Night Manager is an adventure story – and a gripping one. The novel is that too, but it’s also more secret, troubled and private.
Characters and reality
Somehow, I’m finding the characters on the page are more tangible than when they are played by actors. Le Carré’s descriptions seem more potent than seeing an actor physically embody a person. In a film, a character comes to you complete – with hands, voice, expression, stance, clothes. In prose, a character usually appears in fragments. Those fragments are the magic.
For instance, describing Richard Roper’s charm. An actor could play charm, but a writer can pinpoint the essence of that charm – and make us notice something about how charm works:
He let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.’
The author is not a camera giving head-to-toe details; he is a judging, communicating intelligence who can show us what it’s like to be in a person’s presence, at a given moment. It gives you experience as well as observation. Describing Roper’s girlfriend Jed:
Her wit and language have a hypnotic draw. There is something irresistibly funny to everyone, including herself, about the convent-educated English voice enunciating the vocabulary of a navvy. “Darling, do we actually give a fart about the Donahues?” ’
Could a camera or an actor ever express that, and so precisely? And this, when Jonathan Pine is increasingly troubled by the siren Jed:
He watched her in fragments forced upon him. A chance view of her entire upper body in her bedroom mirror while she was changing…’
How would a camera say ‘forced upon him’?
I find this to be a wonderful paradox. A good writer can make a character more alive in your mind than a flesh-and-blood actor can. An actor seems to give just physicality. No matter how closely a camera observes their face, it’s happening at a distance. But a writer is inside your intellect and your feelings. With a well-turned line they can they give you the experience of being with a person – or indeed of being them. You’re passing a door, arrested by a glimpse of a girl undressing.
The cleverness of a good author makes you feel a bit ennobled, better with words yourself. More intelligent, perceptive. Words are far, far more fun than watching.
Take a bad toupee. (Go on, you know you want to.) Le Carré describes it as ‘like a black bear’s paw’. Isn’t it far more fun to read that description than to see a bad toupee in a picture? In a million years, would you have thought of that line? When you read, you share the mind of someone who does.
Women with chiselled faces they never had when they were young, and tucked stomachs and tucked bottoms … but no surgery on earth could spare them the manacled slowness of old age as they lowered themselves into the pool…’
A good writer knows how to go ‘straight to the switchboard’.
Stop – isn’t that an excellent line? It’s not mine, it’s le Carré. A phrase used by Roper’s security guard when describing a technique of interrogation.
Interrogation. That’s a difference I should also mention: how you contribute so much of a book’s experience from your own grey matter. The pictures, places, sounds, significance. For Franz Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’.
Your own pace
And here’s another difference I like. You take a book at your own speed. Dawdle as long as you like over a page, a paragraph, a phrase. In a movie you obey the director’s clock, or the editor’s. In a book, the author sets the pace, of course, but you can adjust it. Linger over a passage you like. Skim the parts you don’t.
I hadn’t considered how important that was until Husband Dave and I read the same book simultaneously. We found we had two copies of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms so we did them in tandem, like a real-time book club. It was fun. We could say ‘I didn’t like the bit where…’ or ‘I’m hoping the character won’t do such-and-such’. I was aware, though, that I was reading to a schedule, so I didn’t let myself linger or dawdle as usual – and I felt rushed.
Reading a book you enjoy isn’t, actually, a hop from this word to this then this, like watching subtitles on a movie or the lyrics prompt on karaoke. It’s not a linear trot through the page from top to bottom, in order. If you want, it can be more like snakes and ladders. You can check a fact or a character name. Wander back to enjoy a favourite fragment again. You can take a book in your own time, your personal journey.
Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.
Tell me your thoughts.
The year was 1992ish, and it was my first time at the critique class. A member read some uncertain opening chapters and asked the group for guidance on where to develop it next. One of the other members began to play the role of analyst and asked what statements he wanted to make with the story, and what answers and conclusions he wished to present.
I hadn’t been writing long, so I kept quiet. Even so, this line of questioning struck me as mistaken. Weren’t questions more potent in stories than answers and statements? And if you were going to present conclusions, or lead the reader to deduce them, didn’t you have to write the story to discover them?
Questions are everything for a creative writer, aren’t they? They are open doors. Possibilities. A beckoning finger; a calling voice. Questions are the very essence of mystery, which is the current of wonder that keeps most stories afloat. What will happen? Come and see.
By the way, I’m not supposed to be writing this. I should be finishing a piece on why I write, but it’s much easier to noodle around with something else. In considering ‘whys’, I’ve been diverted back to that college room, and questions about answers that should have been about questions. Especially the question ‘why’.
Some questions are better than others
Why ‘why’? Because there’s a hierarchy of questions. ‘What’, where’ and ‘how’ are important, because we must have events and cause and effect, but ‘why’ is the golden ticket. ‘What’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ are facts. ‘Why’ is emotions; the personal and individual urges that make us do interesting stuff; the forces that bend our judgement or make us take risks. ‘Why’ does not have a simple answer. It needs a story or a lifetime. It shows us the human condition; that one person is kind while another is vengeful, or one is fearful while another is forgiving. Indeed, the whodunit was perhaps misnamed; the real appeal is in whydunit.
Find your plot holes
‘Why’ is a magic bullet for the writing process too. Most plot holes can be diagnosed by conscientiously and relentlessly asking ‘why’. Why did the character do it? Why does this event matter? Why do the characters persist on their path if it’s causing such strife? If a plot event looks shaky or improbable but your gut says it fits, keep nibbling at why. (BTW, my characters book gives these concepts a thorough workout.)
I think that first session in the critique group taught me something valuable, even though it wasn’t my own work being discussed and I probably didn’t contribute a thing except super-concentrated facial expressions. For a storyteller, questions are more useful than answers.
Thanks for the pic Graeme Maclean
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a piece to finish. But do you have a particular lesson you remember from a critique group?
I’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Last time I discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount. Today I’m looking at the opposite problem.
‘My drafts are too brief’
One writer in the class confessed that he had an uncommon problem – his drafts were quite brief. While most of us had fluff we needed to cut, he never did. Which was an interesting problem. (It turns out he’s not alone. After last week, I had a number of comments from writers who also found their drafts were on the skinny side.)
Here are some places to pump up the pagecount –
- secondary characters
- secondary paths in the main characters’ lives
- back story
- parallel stories
- action that seems to echo the theme.
And here’s a post I wrote about turning a short story into a novel, which includes a link to another post about filling gaps in your story outline.
But back to my student. The key to his problem was rather more interesting, and came later in the day. We were talking about moments when your story might need downtime – say, to give the reader a breather after a sequence of shocks and reversals. Sometimes you need a moment of light relief or a chance for the characters to relax and bond. In movies this is often called a campfire scene. My student made an interesting comment – he understood the need for such a scene but found them boring.
Aha, I said.
Are you a bit bored by the scenes you’ve planned to write?
If you don’t find the scene interesting, you sure won’t get the reader hooked. We know we’re not always the best judge of what is interesting – look at our fondness for indulgent scenes, aka the darlings that must be killed. But an absolute rule is that we must not write a scene we’re not committed to. If we can’t muster a bit of enthusiasm, no one else will.
This led to another discussion – about how we often need a scene to form a particular function but feel disinclined to write it. It’s usually for continuity or story mechanics, but the thought of writing it … zzzz. The answer, obviously, is to find an exciting angle. Find an unlikely setting. Or add a person who mustn’t know what’s going on. Unruly animals are good value. Introduce a factor that lifts your bog-standard, box-ticking event into the unusual. Or consider whether you could despatch the business in a simple line – ‘they flew to the Bahamas’. (Although that isn’t going to solve your problem of a short manuscript. In that case, return to the above.)
Repurpose your flabby scenes to give them new life
One of the exercises we did on the course was a beat sheet. This is a scene-by-scene summary of the entire book, noting the scene’s purpose and what it adds to the story. (Lots more about it in Nail Your Novel, here.)
My student here had another interesting insight. He looked at his own beat sheet and remarked that several sequences in his novel didn’t have that sense of forward progression. Things were happening, but they weren’t moving the story onwards. (What did he say about not having fluff he needed to cut? After looking at his story’s pace, it turned out he did. He was thinking about events, instead of what took the narrative forwards. It’s strange how we can confuse the two.)
Aha, many of us said.
You’ll probably want to trim those out, I said. But you know what? You can repurpose them – perhaps for a subplot, or those downtime scenes. Perhaps rewrite them with a lighter flavour, or use them to demonstrate how characters are bonding. They’re probably events that you were interested to write but are surplus to the main story thread. So use them to enrich the story in other ways.
Thanks for the stamp, Smabs Sputzer
Next time: characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?
There’s more about exercises to build and refine your story in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.
Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did you do it?